The edict that distinguishes clearly between Judy Collins and My Bloody Valentine apparently never reached the Irish village of Ballyporeen, where songwriter Gemma Hayes spent her formative years. On Hayes’ debut album, Night on My Side, the music runs from gentle folk to amplifier-shredding shoegazer noise and hits most of the intervening points. It shouldn’t work, but Hayes — working with producer Dave Fridmann — makes the shifts in tone seem natural. She cheats just a little, dividing the album into “Day” side (loud noise-pop) and “Night” side (the quiet folk), with the half-and-half “Lucky One” easing the transition between the two. This approach isn’t without its problems — after the enthralling noise of the roaring single “Let a Good Thing Go” and five other nearly perfect examples of shoegazing pop, the sedate “Night” side is a bit of a trudge. It’s beautiful stuff, with the epic, mesmerizing “I Wanna Stay” standing out, but still a letdown. If Hayes had let her disparate styles duke it out a little more, some of the material that tends to run together might have been thrown into sharper relief and become more memorable for it. The material is all there for a classic, but the sequencing gives it away.
Hayes put Joey Waronker in the producer’s chair for The Roads Don’t Love You (title courtesy of the Magnetic Fields’ “Long Vermont Roads,” which is sampled on “Happy Sad”) and the change is drastic. The shoegazer/dream-pop elements of Night on My Side are completely gone, replaced by a generic singer-songwriter sound. On paper, it was a shrewd commercial idea that could have led the agreeable pop to airplay on Triple-AAA radio, had the album actually been released in the US. Whether the new sound implies that the debut was more Fridmann’s vision than Hayes’, or Hayes just opted for something more straightforward, the result plants her firmly in the middle of the road. On its own merits, there’s nothing really wrong with The Roads Don’t Love You — Hayes’ songwriting and voice remain in fine form, and, objectively speaking, it’s a good album — but there’s nothing very special about it either, nothing to distinguish her from such likeminded artists as KT Tunstall, Brandi Carlile and Heather Nova (who can’t get her albums released in the US anymore, either). After a debut album that sounded like no one but herself, it’s disappointing to hear Hayes trying to sound like everyone else.
As its title might suggest, The Hollow of Morning is more of a follow-up to Night on My Side than The Roads Don’t Love You. Hayes revisits the shoegazing haze of Night (with guest guitar by shoegazing king Kevin Shields) and mixes it with her quieter tones more organically than on the debut. However, if the atmosphere of Morning is more consistently successful than Night, the songwriting is not on the same par. There are no hooks as immediately sticky as the ones in “Let a Good Thing Go” or “Back of My Hand” — “Out of Our Hands” is as close as Hayes gets here to a standout pop number. Still, The Hollow of Morning is a step back in the right direction.